Why can fairness in hiring practices not be an accepted principle of public employment?

Dear Editor,

On the 7th June, 2017, Mr Sase Singh, in a letter in Stabroek News, wrote complaining of the seeming bias in the selection of permanent secretaries only one of whom is an apparent East Indian. He then submits that this is a betrayal of our national principle of ‘One people, One Nation, One Destiny’ and a clear expression of an “ethnic bias” (‘The administration showed bias in the appointment of permanent secretaries’).

On the 18th June, 2017, the Minister of State, Mr Joseph Harmon, responded to say that Mr Singh was gravely mistaken. In his assessment the persons named in the list provided by Mr Singh were not the result of a calculated and decided outcome but of persons who were already in the “system”. The Minister gave two reasons for the apparent “biased” appearance: a) the names on the list were of persons who were already serving, had the requisite qualifications and were simply “moved up”; and b) some were the result of “recent reassignment” responding to the need for “more qualified and professional permanent secretaries”.

There is little reason to doubt the Minister and not accept, therefore, his explanation at face value. But that is the rub – the procedural explanation without the historical political context.

What most third world governments do, in a classic ‘winner take all’ mindset, is to castrate the opposition and deny them, openly and publicly, any relevance in the political process. Concession to the opposition is simply seen as a moment of incorrigible weakness, surrendering the ramparts and opening the floodgates.

But why is concession to opposition and criticism from them a necessarily bad thing? They remind us of what they see and what requires fixing. Acknowledgement of their view would seem a minimal commitment to fairness and justice: to right political and historic wrongs, associated with ethnic, racial, linguistic or religious communities. Never mind what they did or did not do.

Why is fairness in hiring practices, where there may not always be an ethnic balance, not be an accepted principle of public employment?

Most of the politics we know, at least what we euphemistically call the West, is in fact built on this principle. It is usually and generally known as ‘affirmative action’ an acknowledged and a common practice in large parts of the old Commonwealth; in India and Nepal it goes under the name of reservations; positive discrimination in the Britain; while in South Africa and Canada it is called employment equity.

Some theorists claim that the modern/contemporary practice has its origins in the US, derived from an Executive Order (EO 10925) under President Kennedy in 1961 requiring “racial fairness in employment funded by the federal government”. These practices are largely administrative in character and do not assume a more extensive political agenda associated with consociation or power sharing.

There are three reasons why we should take another look at this. First, we need to remind ourselves of the history of Guyanese politics for the past 50 years and the promise of the APNU+AFC government after the elections of 2015 to clean the Augean Stables.

Second the government of the day will lose the legitimacy battle if it persists in this direction and can’t see the forest from the trees. Third, the country was appalled when in 2011 Dr Roger Luncheon announced that Guyana did not have any African ambassadors because no Africans qualified.

Carl Greenidge in a reply (Stabroek News September 6, 2011) noted “ … Roger Luncheon, a sophist accustomed to entertaining himself at press conferences with ‘clever’ wordplay … feels comfortable, for example, asserting that the absence of African Guyanese as ambassadors of Guyana is not due to racism but to the fact that  no Guyanese Africans are qualified to be ambassadors of Guyana. It was an astonishing reply”. It was indeed!

Yours faithfully,

Rishee Thakur

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